When people talk about common sense, they are often talking about something quite different: an idea embedded in an ideology that they see as “self-evident”. It becomes “common sense” to reduce deficits through budget cuts if your ideology tells you that people are essentially self-interested and will never join with others in the community to repair the damage generated by a recession. It doesn’t matter if history offers plenty of examples suggesting that strategies valuing collective well-being over individual self-interest - such as stricter regulations of financial institutions, improving health care so people are better able and more inclined to work, and/or deliberately bearing higher deficits for a longer time in order to invest in the job creation that will ultimately relieve that deficit - could work just as well if not better to achieve that aim. That’s a domestic example, but it doesn’t take too long a memory to come up with a foreign policy one that is equally illustrative: the fact that less than 10 years ago it was “common sense” in the U.S. to tightly link Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and WMDs. This was a conclusion considered folly in many other countries in the world. But those countries weren’t drowning in the neoconservative foreign policy ideology of using American military might to bring democracy and freedom to the world.
Why is common sense so easily sabotaged by ideology?
One approach to taking on this challenge - very tempting for a newcomer, simply because no one likes looking either ignorant or foolish - is to turn to overly simplified ways of bringing himself up to speed: the media is one way, which overlaps with the second: blindly trusting in various “experts”. Ironically, bringing one's self up to speed is not a phenomena restricted to newcomers: if long term residents have isolated themselves from their communities for whatever reason - personal choice, the time demands of work, frequent travel away from the place, the hard work needed to form authentic relationships - they, too, will turn to these channels to guide their decisions (demonstrating that being in a place for a long time is no guarantee you’ll be connected to it.)
The media and experts respond to this by boiling complicated issues down into digestible but overly-simplified “talking points”. This approach seeks to accommodate the pressure we all experience from the accelerated pace of living that characterizes contemporary life. But it also nudges people towards valuing a false sense of efficiency over the messiness necessary to deal with real life complexity. It will, for instance, encourage "contractual" agreements ahead of real ones (ask someone in the U.S. trying to talk to his bank and prevent foreclosure on his home about this). Or it will compress education down to job training (ask your children about this). Or it will interpret justice only as the “letter of the law” (ask yourself about this: you probably have more than one example). Efficiency is a utilitarian rationalization that serves to undermine common sense, a point made by John Ralston Saul among others. In a time-stressed, increasingly mobile society such efficiency is a relief to most of us (who doesn’t prefer the executive summary to the whole report?), but it comes at a cost: it creates the ideal environment for ideologies to take root and, in the process, push common sense aside.
What this points to is the vulnerability of common sense not just to connection to place but to many other factors (adaptability is one discussed in an earlier post ). Addressing that vulnerability skillfully requires examining the underlying meta-narratives embedded in our collective unconscious - the invisible assumptions about reality we declare to be “self-evident”. Meta-narratives are the breeding ground for ideologies, a topic I will explore in future posts.